From Korean War dogface to presidential pilot |

From Korean War dogface to presidential pilot

John HartBob Beechler, a retired pilot for Unocal, has flown oil company officials and workers, entertainers, and presidents of the United States. Here he stands with family photos in his Lake of the Pines home.
ALL | GrassValleyArchive

At first glance, as he greets you at his Lake of the Pines home, it’s not readily evident that Bob Beechler once had every postwar boy’s dream job.

He’ll most likely lead you around the three-story residence, eagerly pointing out his interests – traveling, filmmaking, photography, the arts.

But it’s evident there’s another passion burning brightly in the 68-year-old’s soul.

Once Beechler left the Army after a three-year stint that took him to the Korean War – “I was what they called a dogface, a foot soldier,” he said – he embarked on a career that would send the southern Californian around the globe and back again countless times.

First, it was as a pilot for an oil company that charged him with flying petroleum-seekers on missions in Libya and North Africa, and then as a corporate pilot for Union Oil Co. (now Unocal) in Los Angeles, where some of America’s biggest stars and newsmakers were passengers on Beechler’s sleek DC-3.

Once he gets going, the stories roll off Beechler’s tongue as fast as a new Boeing 777 off the tarmac.

After the war, he flew oil barons along Libya’s Barbary Coast. In the earliest days of his tour of duty for Trans-Ocean International, he’d seek clearance before landing on a Libyan beachhead or potential oilfield.

Seems Erwin Rommel, the German general dubbed “the Desert Fox” who led the Axis powers to victories in North Africa during World War II, never bothered to pull up many of the land mines planted there.

“In those days, it was a Third World country, with many Italian and German influences,” said Beechler, who worked in Libya for seven years after his Army service expired. “It was relatively undeveloped,” he said – ruins from the Roman Empire were all around him.

While there, Beechler formed a tight relationship with the country’s Prince Said Abdulla Abed Sinussi, “a huge man” with many wives. Each wife had her own compartment in the plane Beechler flew.

Later that year, Beechler moved back to Los Angeles with his late wife, Sue, where he’d soon rub elbows with some of America’s cultural elite as a corporate pilot for Union Oil.

In his DC-3, he’d fly them to dinners, roasts, comedy clubs – anywhere.

He flew Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, host of television’s “Laugh-In,” almost annually to the Bohemian club in Santa Rosa. Often, TV host Art Linkletter would go too. He also chauffeured everyone’s favorite bogeyman, Vincent Price.

Every time one of these stars boarded, Beechler barely felt the temptation to ask for an autograph or a quick word. “In aviation, you can’t divide your attention,” he said.

He flew Richard M. Nixon long before he got to the White House.

True to portrayals of the 37th president, “he wasn’t rude, just aloof,” Beechler said. “He just wasn’t as congenial as, say, Carter.” Among his photos is a shot of Carter shaking hands with him at the Burbank airport where Beechler was based.

When his DC-3 was retired a few years ago, Beechler was asked to write the plane’s history, a project he keeps in two leather-bound volumes at his home.

Another volume of his project is at the California Museum of Science and Industry in Los Angeles, along with the DC-3 he piloted for years.

“I probably have more time in a DC-3 than almost any man alive. I was very happy to do this … I found I turned up aviation history that no one ever knew,” said Beechler, who logged 34 years and 15,500 hours in the air by the time he retired in 1994.

These days, he’s content traveling – pictures of trips to Greece, Italy, Stonehenge, India and parts of Asia line his walls – and feeding his appetite for art.

“I did this for 34 years, and I feel I was lucky to combine my love of creative arts with aviation, and it worked out well for me,” he said. “As far as flying goes, though, I don’t miss it at all.”

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